The Tax Code is among the most complex of all federal statutes. To explain the Code, the IRS issues guidance. Recently, the IRS has used the “Frequently Asked Question (FAQ)” format to explain some of the tax laws. At the same time, questions have arisen about the FAQs. May taxpayers rely on them like other types of IRS guidance?
Congress has authorized the IRS to “prescribe all needful rules and regulations for the enforcement of” the Tax Code. Traditionally, the IRS has communicated its interpretation of the tax laws through published guidance, including regulations, revenue rulings, revenue procedures, notices, and announcements. These items are published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin (IRB). Taxpayers may rely on guidance published in the IRB.
The IRS has explained that its policy is to publish in the IRB all substantive issues and answers necessary to promote a uniform application of the tax laws. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), each annual volume of the IRB contains about 2,000 pages of tax regulations and other guidance items. The GAO reviewed the IRS’s guidance process in September in a special report.
A quick search of the IRS website reveals FAQs on a host of subjects. The IRS has posted extensive FAQs about the Affordable Care Act. These FAQs cover topics such as the employer mandate, the premium assistance tax credit, minimum essential health coverage and more. Many FAQs also discuss reporting and disclosure requirements under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA). Many topics in the tax law have a set of FAQs posted on the IRS website.
Sometimes, FAQs are published by the IRS in the IRB. These FAQs are authoritative because guidance published in the IRB is binding on IRS and can be relied upon by taxpayers as authoritative. One example, the GAO noted, was guidance issued by the IRS on virtual currency several years ago.
However, many FAQs are not published in the IRB. They may only appear on the IRS website. The GAO discovered that limitations on using these FAQs are not always explained to taxpayers. Sometimes, the IRS has posted a disclaimer alerting taxpayers that a particular set of FAQs are not authoritative. GAO found, however, that the IRS does not always post a disclaimer with every set of FAQs.
GAO recommended that the IRS provide more clarity about FAQs. The IRS could, for example, post some explanatory language to help taxpayers understand what type of IRS information is considered authoritative and reliable as a precedent for a taxpayer’s facts and circumstances. The IRS generally agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and indicated that it will consider ways to communicate any limitations on information provided to the public.